Chaim Ingram
Chaim Ingram

ACUTE ANGLES: Should I Convert?

Dear Rabbi.  I was brought up Catholic but have long ceased to believe a word of what Christianity teaches.  I do however have a strong belief in the one G-d and feel His presence over me.  I have read much of the “Old Testament” (the Tanakh) and its laws, ethics and messages strongly resonate with me. I have also read and been inspired by Donin’s classic To Be A Jew. I feel a great warmth towards the Jewish People!  I been seriously considering conversion for some time but each time I tell my Jewish friends I’m going to do it, they try to dissuade me. They say why not stay a Noachide and keep just seven commandments instead of the far more challenging load that the Torah requires for Jews.  Interestingly I was circumcised as a baby as it is a tradition in my family. (I think my paternal great-grandfather was Jewish.) I have been told that you tutor a lot of converts and so you may be in a good position to offer advice.  Is it as hard as my friends make out?  How should I decide whether or not to convert? I should add that I am unattached and have no kids. Thank you for your advice.  Yours, Stu.

Dear Stu,

It sounds like your friends are Jewishly savvy.  If so, they are kind of doing the right thing.  The Beth Din (court of at least three highly-qualified rabbis) who would interview you if you applied would also do their utmost to discourage you – at least at first.  They want to see how desperately you wish to be Jewish!

We call becoming Jewish a “process”. It isn’t like doing a diploma course or learning to drive. To be Jewish is to adopt a way of life which governs one’s behaviour 24/7!  It requires an internal upheaval more profound than any limb replacement or organ transplant.  It involves, in short, a “soul transplant”. There is no set course duration. Some are spiritually ready within months of embarkation and they just need to assimilate the intellectual knowledge. For others the process of full metaphysical recalibration may take years!

I have enjoyed the challenge of tutoring both types of students and everything in between. But to the very best of my knowledge, with one sole exception (someone who turned out to be severely mentally disturbed), none of my many successful students – nor my wife’s for that matter – have regretted becoming Jewish for one instant! That is largely to the credit of the weeding-out process engendered by the initial put-offs.

You ask: how should you decide?  Let me answer you by referring to a discussion I had several years ago in Israel with an ex-Sydney couple who had successfully made aliya with their children.  I asked them to what they attributed their success as olim whereas other contemporaries who had emigrated to Israel around the same time hadn’t made it work.  The husband replied: If the reason you make aliya is because you know there is nowhere else on earth you could happily live, then you will succeed!

Similarly, I would say to anyone contemplating conversion: If deep inside, you know there is no way you could possibly live a meaningful life except as a hands-on, mitsva-keeping Jew, you will make it!    

If on the other hand, even while loving the Jewish people and embracing the philosophy and theology of Judaism, you’re not passionate about making the commitment to full-time, full-bodied Torah living with its multiple complexities and challenges, you would be better of staying a good Noachide rather than becoming an unfulfilled/unfulfilling Jew.

So if your doubts stem only from your friends’ negativity rather than your own ambivalence, appreciate that they are giving you advice based on their understanding that Judaism is not a proselytising faith.

However, what is not so widely understood is that there is a time for dissuasion and a time for encouragement.   Naomi issues three put-offs to her Moabite daughter-in-law, Ruth. But Ruth remains determined whereupon Naomi, appreciating her sincerity, embraces her as a daughter.  Ruth goes on to marry Boaz, the leader of his generation, and their great-grandson becomes the greatest king of Israel, King David!

Sincere converts are an inspiration.  And the approach of Judaism towards such converts is ardently positive. Says the Talmud: The Holy One exiled Israel among the nations only in order that geirim, sincere converts, be added to their ranks. (Pesachim 87b). An amazing statement!  In past generations when Jews were unrelentingly persecuted (not that antisemitism has disappeared from 21st century life!), it was deemed inconceivable that anyone of sound mind would seriously wish to become Jewish! But today Batei Din are receiving countless and ever-mounting inquiries from sincere seekers after truth who believe Torah Judaism is the only creed by which they can happily live.  If you are of that ilk, for sure you will succeed – to all our betterment!

Avrohom Goldstein, a geir tsedek (convert) who is now a rabbi, relates how, when he visited the Bobover Rebbe (a renowned Chassidic leader), the latter rose in respect much to the former’s embarrassment. Explaining, the Rebbe said: “My father once told me that one of the signs that Mashiach is imminent is that there will be an influx of new neshamot (souls) entering the holy covenant of Torah!”

So if any way of life other than Torah Judaism is inadequate for you, go ahead and bring the Messiah closer for us all!

About the Author
Rabbi Chaim Ingram is the author of four books on Judaism and honorary rabbi of Sydney Jewish Centre on Ageing.